Open letter to the Assembly Trustees: Church and the implications of Coronavirus
Not a criticism! Just a few ideas to put into the pot in these troubled times. Wholeheartedly agreeing with you that it is great to see many congregations rise to the challenges before us and we want to see this continue. And that needs to be paid for, also agreed. Whilst I hear your call to maintain income as much as possible and so continue to pay our M&M contributions, we are living in unprecedented times and that calls for unprecedented action.
At Falkirk Trinity, our town centre charge is involved heavily as a centre for much activity, including numerous lets, events, and our popular weekday café. Our treasurer has estimated that these things, together with envelope-giving members, could result in cash-flow trouble to the extent of some 40%. Accordingly, and prudently, but reluctantly, we have decided to submit just over 50% of our M&M contributions for the next three months in order to gauge the situation, and have advised Presbytery accordingly. It is always a hope that we will catch up again!
Admittedly, many of our congregations across Scotland have more “senior members” and perhaps their income stream may not be as affected as those still in employment and enable them to continue to give, however this is a worrying time for many whose financial lives are now under a dark cloud. When the Government is now taking unprecedented steps to provide funding for businesses, the employed, and the self-employed, on a scale never seen before; when lenders are offering payment holidays, gyms are freezing memberships, and the financial world (and so it should) is trying to discover new ways to help, it is right we should also ask: What is the Church doing to help financially?
The monthly outlay of £5million makes us sit up and think. If this is not sustainable then our radical thoughts may have to be more radical than we first imagined before the present-day crisis appeared. Whilst our thoughts are focussed on getting through the remainder of this year, what lies ahead of us may also cause dismay because we can no longer go on being what we have always been, however much members don’t want to hear that.
Amongst the suggestions to boost finances is digging into reserves. Yes, we have some, mainly in an account where the balance resulted from the sale of previous buildings. Are these the same reserves we have now to call upon? To date we have not been allowed to use such funds on anything apart from property matters due to archaic rules in the Church. If these are the reserves now to be used it would take special permission to do so, and if so used would make the old rules doubly ridiculous because in previous days when we needed more money for mission-based activities to re-ignite a declining Church we were unable to do so. If there is a crisis now, there was also a crisis beforehand of a different variety, a crisis of decline that we had over half a century to address but steadfastly refused to do so.
I am glad to hear that the Chief Officer and the General Treasurer are working urgently on measures to ensure the financial sustainability of the Church going forward. I hope this includes finding and releasing the reserves that the national Church holds because such reserves belong to us all – we are in this together – and it would be encouraging to see interim measures emerging soon of how shortfalls and loss of income will be met by central reserves and not ask re-emerging congregations to spend their time making up for possible lost money. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. Whilst the Church of Scotland welcomes funding from the Scottish Government to assist communities, what funding can our congregations expect to assist them?
Maybe our Churches will grow after all this, maybe they won’t. Maybe they will recover financially, maybe they won’t. Whilst ministry continues in many varied and creative ways, we could also use this time to encourage our congregations with the promise of financial help and a plan for the months ahead.
M&Ms were due to be revised with a new system going into place. It is needed sooner rather than later. If the Growth Fund has to go, it has to go. A radically revised M&M and changes to allow use of previously reserved funds could give congregations the impetus they need to grow on the other side of this dreadful pandemic. You were charged with being radical, now is the time to be more radical than we ever imagined.
Forgive me, staying at home plays with my mind and spirit!